Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and
Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus, American Public University System
Institutions of higher education are often compared and judged based on their graduation rates, but it often provides an incomplete picture of institutional success. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus of American Public University System, about various metrics used to compare institutions and the many variables that affect those metrics.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus at American Public University System. And our conversation today is about graduation rates. Welcome, Wally.
Dr. Wallace Boston: Thank you, Bjorn, it’s good to be here.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, and I’m excited about this conversation. Graduation rates in higher education are kind of a metric that is used to compare. So in a recent article that you penned, “When Graduation Rates are All About the Numbers, Are They Really?” you discuss graduation rates in higher education. And so my first question is, how and why are graduation rates just one metric of many of a colleges’ success?
Dr. Wallace Boston: The good news is that many people recognize there are different things to recognize other than graduation rate. So, for example, completion of courses, pass/fail rate, retention, or the persistence of someone from course to course. At the same time, I think most people look at graduation rates as a measure of how successful the institution is instead of a measurement of how many students who are admitted to the institution actually graduate.
When it gets pretty complex is when you say, “Okay, this institution doesn’t have a…” let’s just pick a perfect number, “100% graduation rate, why is its graduation rate 50%, 25%, 75%, 95%? Why isn’t it 100%?” That’s when it gets complicated.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you said complicated because graduation rates are complicated because you have more elite institutions where the graduation will be around 92%, 94%. And you’ll have other institutions where they’ll be anywhere from, honestly, 10% up to the 90%. Here’s a question which I think oftentimes happens, but should we look to “elite” schools as aspirational when it comes to higher education and graduation rates?
Dr. Wallace Boston: Absolutely not. And the reason for that is, so there are different definitions of elite schools. If you go to the most elite, what they call the Ivy Plus, so it’s the eight institutions that form the Ivy League, which is really an athletic league, plus Northwestern, Duke, Stanford, University of Chicago, and I’m probably leaving one other institution out. The Ivy Plus institutions, all 13 of them, have graduation rates from 94% up to high 90s, no one has 100% graduation rate. After all, Bill Gates didn’t graduate from Harvard, neither did Mark Zuckerberg. But the fact of the matter is that the reason that those institutions’ graduation rates are so high is they are the most selective in terms of admissions.
So when you’re highly selective, taking someone whose high school GPA was, if it wasn’t 4.0, it was really close to it. Their SAT scores, if they weren’t 1600, they were pretty close to it. The irony is they turn down a lot of people with 4.0s and perfect SAT scores, so they’re not totally looking for that, but they are looking for the superstars of everything.
Generally, with a pool like that, the success of the student in high school, as well as the success of their intellectual background based on testing scores, is an extremely good predictor of their ultimate success.
And then when you weigh into their background such as: Did both of their parents go to college? Well, if they are at an Ivy Plus institution, I’d say the odds are probably at least 75% to 85% that both of their parents went to college, maybe even higher than that.
So, all of those predictors lead to someone having the background as well as the intellectual capacity and sort of a roadmap from both parents and associates to succeed in college. When you get below the Ivy Plus there are only 100 institutions out of 5,000 that accept less than 50% of the students who apply, so the next 85 out of the top 100 accept less. They’re going to have a decent rate, too, I’m going to guess their rate is going to be above 80%, but less than the Ivy Plus. But after that graduation rates go down in proportion to the selectivity of the institution.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m really glad you brought up selectivity because if you have very strict criteria on the people you let in, say you go to, like you said, one of the Ivies, the traditionals like Dartmouth, and so the students that go to those schools are, again, are great, are brilliant. But it’s also not what I would say was typical of your student population and so those schools service a need, 100%.
What is a good median or average school that has a good graduation rate with really good learning outcomes that could be used as a good example? Versus when you’re reading examples and you’re watching, say the news, the experts are always from Harvard, they’re always talking about all those elite schools.
Dr. Wallace Boston: In answer to your question, Bjorn, I’m thinking off the top of my head – William & Mary is a state institution in Virginia, it’s the second oldest institution in America after Harvard. I believe that in the most recent year, William & Mary actually was one of those top 100 schools that admitted 42% of their applicants and 25% of the ones who were admitted, enrolled. So, there were a lot of students who were applying institutions other than William & Mary.
Nonetheless, the College Navigator tells me that William & Mary has a 91% graduation rate. It’s not a single digit acceptance rate like the Ivy Plus schools are. They are admitting 42%. But I think whereas certainly William & Mary is doing a good job, I look at the test scores of the students who go there. It appears the SATs are the 25th percentile at William & Mary or 1300, and for the 75th percentile are 1490. So, you still have high-achieving academic background of the individuals who are being admitted and who are matriculating at William & Mary.
I can think of Texas A&M, but Texas A&M has 68,000 students. My guess is that while they admit a higher percent of their students, they probably have a lower graduation rate because with 68,000 students, you’re bound to have some people transfer.
So if I look at Texas A&M’s overall graduation rates, 83%, so that part of it’s not too bad. Remember, they have 68,000 students. If you look at their admissions stats, Texas A&M admits 63%, so that’s not bad. They’re admitting 63% of their SATs, the 25th percentile is lower than William & Mary’s. It’s 1160 instead of 1200, and the 75th percentile is not bad either, it’s 1380. So William & Mary’s was closer to 1500. So, a slightly lower profile of academic backgrounds as far as SAT scores go and a much higher percentage of students were admitted, 63%. But a pretty decent graduation rate, 83%.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One of the examples that I like to use is University of Kansas, so… large state institution, and its acceptance rate is about 93% which is basically letting everyone in. Which is quite amazing and then its graduation rate is 62%, which again, compared to William & Mary and the Ivies is a much lower, lower graduation rate, but the fact that they’re letting in pretty much everybody and they’re graduating 62%, 63% of their students is quite a wonderful achievement.
So, this leads me to the next question: Why do schools such as the University of Texas El Paso and Jackson State get “negative” press for their graduation rates, because their graduation rates are basically in the teens?
Dr. Wallace Boston: Well, as you may know, much of my academic research for my dissertation was around student retention. For years, we’ve known that the percentage of students at an institution are not in that traditional 18- to 24-year-old bracket, and are not residential. The risk of those students not persisting gets higher and higher, so commuter schools, which can be community colleges or they can be four-year schools; commuter schools have one of the highest risk of people not matriculating or not graduating. There are several different reasons.
First of all, if you’re living at home, you have distractions. Secondly, if you’re living at home, money might be an issue for you and you may be working close to full-time to help support not just yourself, but your family. So you may have issues that surface with either your family situation, or your job, or both. If you’re commuting, you can’t get a class to match up with your work schedule and take the class to be convenient. So you’re either reducing your load, you’re no longer a full-time student which reduces your financial aid. If you go below a half-time student, you don’t get any financial aid at all. One of the things that is also known is that students who reduce their course load from a full-time load to something less than full-time are also more at risk of dropping out or transferring.
So those are just the quick reasons, but then in the two specific examples that you gave, both El Paso and Jackson State, the state of Mississippi is the 49th wealthiest state, or said, it’s the second poorest state in the country. Its family income is very, very low. So, the lower the family income, the higher the risk that an individual won’t even enroll in college. But then those individuals who do enroll in college have a higher risk of dropping out.
El Paso, while Texas is not the second poorest state, El Paso is one of the poorest areas of Texas. If you have a commuter school with residents primarily from El Paso, I would hazard a guess to say that probably the socio-economic income in El Paso’s probably not that much different than the socio-economic income in Mississippi.
Another reason why the graduation rate’s lowest from a state that I lived in until about a year or so ago, Maryland, the lowest graduation rate for a state school is Coppin State, which is 6%. It just so happens that Coppin State, it’s a Historically Black College and University. It is in the city of Baltimore, and it is in one of the worst neighborhoods of Baltimore. So, 6% is their graduation rate. Surprised it’s that high, actually. All the students commute. They might have one dorm. It’s just not a safe neighborhood for anybody to be in, all the reasons I’ve already cited plus lots of risk being a commuting student in that neighborhood. And some of the lowest academic credentials of a matriculating students are probably at Coppin State compared to the other state institutions.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And you just brought up so many good, good, good factors that go into graduation rates. So, I guess the question is for elite schools, their graduation rate is going to be great. Academically the schools are wonderful, they provide support. The faculty are amazing. The administration works tirelessly.
And for other schools, again, the faculty are great faculty at UTEP, at Coppin State, at Jackson State. The faculty work hard, but then the socio-economic status of the students is, of course, not as high. That, of course, complicates things and it makes everything more complicated even in the sense that students sometimes struggle paying for books. If they can’t pay for books, that might be the roadblock that dis-enrolls them.
For schools that have more commuter students, a lower SES, what can they do to help students? Should schools be rated on a graduation rate of like eight years instead of, say, four to six? Should there be other degree options versus just, say, a bachelor’s degree? What are different ways in which colleges and universities can service students versus the traditional ways that have been around for decades?
Dr. Wallace Boston: Yeah, great question. So, the Department of Education’s now tracking graduation rates for institutions at four, six, and eight years. Essentially double what the traditional time period is, so if you’re at community college, it’ll be two, four, and six. It’s four, six, and eight for a four-year school.
Now, interestingly, there are some schools, American Public University System, where I was president is one of them, that because of their open enrollment status allow students 10 years to graduate. There are plenty of students over the years at APUS who’ve taken 10 years to graduate. I’ve always said that we give them 10 years whether they start it as a true freshman or they transferred in credits from another institution. Many times when I look at the average credits that are transferred in and apply how many courses a year they take with us, some of the people who are taking close to 10 years with us may have taken seven years somewhere else before they transferred in the courses.
So, part-time students, I applaud them just to get there. So, when you look at what schools can do, I think the schools really need to try to provide the communication and the ability for their students to get counseling of all types, not just academic counseling in the sense of, “How can I succeed in this course”, but academic counseling, “How can I choose the right major that allows me to graduate earlier rather than later?” Because if we change our minds, sometimes we have to take different courses, and it’s going to take us awhile.
I mean, my brother, when he and I were in college, we’re only a year apart, he decided he wanted to be a business major. He, I think, started out as a psychology major. He wanted to be a business major. Well, it just so happened at the branch of the University of Maryland he went to did not have a business degree, so he had to transfer. When he transferred, even though he was still in the University of Maryland system, because he had to take some courses for business that he had not taken, he had completed two years at this other branch of the University of Maryland. It ended up taking him five years to graduate. The crazy part, it might have taken him longer if he really hadn’t fought for every one of the credits he had to fight for.
In the state of Texas, where I now reside, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board tracks what they call the excess credits that students have to take. And when they started tracking this back in 2015, I think the average statewide for excess credits was about 16. They set a goal for by 2030, they want it not to be more than three credit hours, one course extra. And they are actually reducing that number, they’ve already gotten it down from about 16 to, I think the last number I saw was under 10.
In order to do that you really have to counsel people appropriately, and you have to make sure that people select a major that’s best for them upfront and they understand the consequences of switching. And then if they don’t, and they do need to switch, switch them earlier rather than later. Don’t let somebody get all the way to junior year and they decide they are in the wrong major. That’s just not good.
So, that type of counseling is important. Counseling per course so they don’t flunk a course. The killer courses at some schools, particularly the schools that are open enrollment, are typically your fundamental English course and your fundamental math course, college math and college English. And if you can’t pass those courses, and it’s the cases at some schools, you can’t even get into the courses because they’ve deemed, based on your high school, that you need have developmental math and developmental English. You’ve got to find a way to get those students through those classes because, statistically, if a student can’t get through developmental math or remedial math, or can’t get through developmental English or remedial English, they’re not going to get through English 101 or Math 101.
It’s just not going to happen, and those are fundamental required courses in just about every college and university in the United States. You’ve got to demonstrate that you can do those two subjects. I’d say it’s reasonable that you do those two. You don’t have to do calculus except at the elite schools, but if you’re going to get a job somewhere you have to do basic algebra and that’s what really the basic college math courses are all about.
And you also have to be able to read and write appropriately so people know you’re able to process the materials that come across your desk each day, or the emails, or communicate with a customer. That’s what those courses are all designed for. Sadly, our high schools aren’t necessarily doing a good job of that. Once again, I’d go to a state like Texas that’s very data driven and very aligned in looking at the money that they’re spending on their educational system.
So if you go to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and look at this 60x30TX, which is their strat plan, which is to have 60% of their high school graduates to have some form of college certification, either graduated with a certificate, a two-year degree, or a four-year degree by 2030. They’re tracking every single high school in the state. They’re tracking how well those high schools are doing in placing people into college. As we just cited with the example of El Paso, the poorer areas have a much lower rate of students who go to college.
Well, guess what? They’re giving those areas resources, and I don’t think they’re doing it from a shaming perspective. But it’s like, “Let’s be transparent, so when the legislature meets again we need to find ways to funnel our budget,” because the state knows it will not continue to be a draw for businesses to relocate to the state if they can’t show and demonstrate that people who live in that state can benefit from an education system that prepares them for jobs of the future. It’s not all about the college in some cases. It’s about the feeder schools that feed into those schools, if it’s a college that draws primarily from the local area.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: A lot of really good information there. One of the things I really liked what you said was about the excess credits. I know when I went through college, I had about 16 excess credits that, for an undergraduate, were essentially wasted. I could have not graduated early, because I did graduate in four years, but I could have had like not had to have to taken those if I would have planned better or better policies. I didn’t even change my major.
And I really liked what you said about counseling because if students have good counseling, and if they try to figure out a major at least earlier, then they can get through as long as they are really focused and if they have the resolution, of course, there’s always been talk about grit and whatnot.
I know for my own doctorate, it took me 10 years plus to finish my doctorate. And for a lot of people, there’s many, many times in their college career where they could easily give up. And from my own experience, my doctorate, I could have easily given up and just been like, “Look, I’m done.” Then gone off and done something and had a good life, et cetera, et cetera.
But, in my own life, all of the opportunities that I really have had come about and have been facilitated because I had a doctorate. So I’m so thankful that I did have that resolution to really finish the doctorate. But for many people, something could have happened, a life event could have happened, a financial issue could have happened, and they could easily have stopped. It’s totally understandable, and that’s why graduation rates are so extraordinarily difficult.
And with Texas, I’m really glad you brought that up. I grew up in El Paso. I graduated high school in El Paso. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying it’s a land-poor city, because it’s in the middle of a desert. It’s really far from the major areas of Austin and Houston. It’s literally on the other side of the state. So El Paso does an absolutely wonderful job, but it unfortunately is a “poorer” area. So they do everything they can, and like you said, there’s absolutely no shame into allocating more resources, wise resources to help schools that are “struggling” with graduation or college placement. And the next question is how should colleges and universities be rated and judged?
Dr. Wallace Boston: That’s a great question. When I look at the literature on how to measure student success, there is a scholar by the last name of Astin who said that persistence is when a student succeeds in accomplishing their personal goal. So, believe it or not, it may or may not be that a student’s goal is to graduate from an institution. It could be that a student’s goal is to take a couple of courses and get a promotion at their job. Those courses may not even lead to a bonafide certificate, just they found out they could take a marketing course. And if they take the marketing course, they can get a promotion from counter clerk to salesperson. So, you really have to both look at the institution and then ask the institution to provide that measurement.
So, for example, when we look at graduation rates at American Public University System, we, over the years, decided that we had so many students who are taking courses for transfer that we do not want to put a student who’s taking courses for transfer in the denominator of our calculated graduation rate.
So, some years ago, I think it was around 2010, we were working with the CCME, which is the Council of College Military Educators, to try to come up with what should be the calculated graduation rate for students who are active-duty military. By that point we’d been working with the definition of what we called a classic student and tweaking our definition and the difference between the definition at University of Maryland University College, which is now University of Maryland Global Campus. And the two of us were the largest in terms of enrollment of active-duty military. I think we were at four courses and they were five, so we simply came up with five because it represents one semester.
So, if a student has completed one semester’s worth of courses with us, as well as transferred in at least three courses, or nine credit hours, we consider that a classic student. That’s in the denominator for what we measure. Now, we have to provide much more broader data to the Department of Education for their calculator, but the fact of the matter is that if you’ve served in the military, which that number represents more than 70% of our students, you are going to get academic credit for some of your training.
So, our students who serve in the military, the last time I looked at the average, actually transfer about 28 credit hours. Some of that credit hour comes from training and some of the credit hour comes from attending other schools. Some of those courses are courses they take for transfer at those other schools, so those other schools shouldn’t be penalized for the courses that someone takes to transfer to us or vice versa.
But the reason I’m going on this long-winded calculation, it took us a number of years to determine how appropriately to measure ourselves in terms of what our graduation rate was. And the good news is that accrediting bodies allow schools to explain why they look at a graduation rate differently, and as long as you clearly articulate that graduation rate, you’re not misleading the public at all.
In fact, if you go to our website, we list 100% of the students who actually complete a course. As long as you start a course and complete it, we’re going to show you because that’s what the Department of Education wants. We go down from there, “Okay, they complete a course. They’re full-time, they’re part-time, whatever,” until we can get to the denominator for what we use for our calculation, which is complete 15 credit hours, which is one semester, transfer in nine credit hours. That’s a classic student.
A friend of mine, who’s been president of Community College of Baltimore County for about 20 years, surprised me one day when I said, “Now, how do you look at graduation rate?” I said, “You have 60,000 students, that’s quite a few.” She says, “Well, we have 60,000 students, but only have 12,000 of them who are pursuing a two-year degree.” “Really?” And she said, “Yes.” She goes, “So every year we have somewhere between 2,200 and 2,400 that graduate.” And I said, “Oh, so 2,200 or 2,400 on 12,000, not 2,200 or 2,400 on 60,000.” She goes, “Yeah.” She goes, “Those 60,000, most of them are not seeking a degree at all.”
I think most institutions have a very good idea how to measure this. And what the accrediting bodies look at is: Are you succeeding or are you failing? Are you improving when you set your measurement for measuring graduation rate or are you not improving? How do you explain it and what are your reasons why?
I think that, sadly though, it does get a little complicated. I mean, we have to have a table on our webpage. It does fit on one page. We have a table though, we try to explain how we go from the calculation that the US government requires us to submit to the Department of Education to our calculation. It’s all there and all the numbers tie. That’s what accountants like, making sure the numbers tie to each other, but there definitely are explanations.
I mean, for example, one of the recently termed explanations for student retention is student swirling. And that deals with the students who are taking courses for transfer. So, one of the things that I often ask our data people at APUS to look at is the number of students who are stating that they’re seeking a degree, but they’ve not sent us a transcript. Because we happen to know that well over 90% of our graduates transfer in some credits, because we are transfer-friendly. And if you’ve earned a credit somewhere, we encourage you to submit the credit. Back to that conversation in the state of Texas, we really don’t want you taking excess courses. We want to try to help you to get through as soon as possible.
So, because we know that such a high percentage of graduates have transfer credits, if a student has said they’re degree seeking, but they don’t send us any transfer credits, I’ve told people we need to be very suspicious that that student is not a serious student. We go out of our way to try to encourage people to submit the transcripts to us, in fact, we don’t charge them for the evaluation nor do we charge them for getting it.
So, if you do sign us an authorization form, and you do know that you earned some credits at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, we will mail in the request and we will pay UMBC $5, $15, $10, whatever it is. We’ll pay that fee. So you don’t have to do it, we’ll take care of it. We’ll pay the fee, we’ll get it in there, and we’ll get it logged in as a transfer.
So back to the student swirling, there are many definitions of student swirling, but essentially one of them is that a student may attend two or three institutions, but only one of the institutions they’re attending is their home institution. So the home institution is where all the credits are logged in, where all the transfer credits are coming into. And so, if you happen to not have a student who’s taken the time to transfer their credits to you, you’re probably not their home institution.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is an issue, because are a lot of students who go from school to school. I’ve seen some transcripts where they’ve got to like five different schools, and then they are at our institution, and we’re the sixth. And you hope amongst everything that they will be successful, of course. That’s one of the things I think our conversation about graduates really gets complicated because it comes down to each individual student. When you think about all the institutions out there with thousands of students, who service students who are rich to poor to everything in between and are just trying to improve their lives. It’s all about where they are in their life, and if they can achieve that goal. Everything you said about counseling and all this is so important.
It really makes me think about the purpose of education which is transformational. It’s supposed to start at the beginning as a young student, or maybe as an older student. The traditional student is, I believe, the minority these days because everybody can go back and get a college degree, which is good.
So what is the purpose of education? It’s transformation, especially today when I think of 2025 and I think of 2030 and 2040. So much of it is focused on technology, and we all have to be able to write, and really scaling up so you can be successful for the rest of your career, whatever that looks like. And it’s been an absolutely wonderful conversation about graduation rates.
Now, as a side question, do you have any suggestions or advice to politicians about how they might talk about graduation rates in a positive way versus a more judgmental way, even in an offhand comment sometimes? Or maybe they don’t intend to say something but it comes off as potentially negative?
Dr. Wallace Boston: Education, whether it’s K-12 or higher education, has primarily been regulated by the states in which the bulk of the students attend. So, when you look at graduation rates, I think you really need to start at the state level. And I think it’s really good that the state of Texas set a goal six years ago to have 60% of their residents achieve some form of post-secondary certification, either a certificate, two-year degree, or four-year degree. Then they went out and said, “Where are we?” They were not at 60%.
Texas is, I think, 36th in terms of having its population achieve a level of education. The state that’s ranked number one, and by the way, they’re not at 60%, is Massachusetts. Massachusetts is just under 60% for that stat. So, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board took a big, hairy, audacious goal and said, “We’re going to go for 60% because we’d be number one right now if we had 60% achievement rate.”
The United States is an extremely diverse country. The wealth is scattered, but it’s not uniformly scattered. So states that have a highly educated workforce, have a lot of technology, they are doing well. States that don’t have a highly educated workforce and have what I’d call the old industries, car manufacturing, steel manufacturing, and just plain old retail aren’t going to do as well as those states that are attracting the newer industries.
You really can’t look at graduation rates, in my opinion, college graduation rates on national level. You need to look at it state by state. I think it’s great that a state like Texas that currently ranks 36 has said, “You know what? We have a lot of wealth and natural resources here. We have an attractive climate. We actually have an attractive tax structure, but we’re going to have to set a goal and get to that goal.”
Furthermore, in Texas, which Texas is the second largest state in the United States in terms of population. California is number one. They’ve broken the data down, they get it why El Paso which has lower income, isn’t doing as well as Dallas. Even in Dallas, the performance of the schools differs. If you’re in Highland Park, which may be the wealthiest area of Dallas, those schools are performing so much better than the east side of Dallas, but at least it’s all out there. You can aggregate it and you know where your population is and you know where they’re moving to.
So in the case of the politicians for the state of Texas, and the governor appoints everyone to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. But they have staggered terms so multiple governors, if it changes from Republican to Democrat, it doesn’t matter. They all get their chance at people expiring on the terms and putting new people on.
But the bottom line is you are putting numbers out there, you recognize that no area inside your state is exactly alike, but it’s everybody’s job to get a little better. And so if your goal for the entire state is a 60% achievement rate starting from post-secondary certificate all the way up to a four-year degree, everybody’s got to pitch in. Maybe El Paso can never get higher than 38% or 40%, I don’t know what their numbers are, but maybe’s that the best they can do just due to circumstances.
But if they brought their two points up, then it’s two points that perhaps Dallas or some other area does not have to pick up. That’s how politicians need to look at it. It doesn’t mean that our state-funded educational system and colleges and universities have to be equally funded. The idea would be to fund them to their needs, so they can bring up the educational level of the population they serve.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And for Texas to have that aspirational goal of 60% is really good because it really means that they’re really trying to improve things. And from a state perspective, if you can move the dial in how your students are achieving, that means that you’re more competitive on the national level.
And, honestly, one of the great things about life today is that if you want to move, there is the potential to move. So literally you can say, if you live in Arizona, for example, “Okay, I’m tired of the summer. Where do I want to live?” You can literally start picking and choosing where you want to live based on if it’s Texas, or Massachusetts, or schools, quality of life, et cetera, et cetera.
And so people today have a really unique opportunity to start moving different places and they can really start choosing based on what opportunities they want for their kids, different services for themselves. And like you said, the US as a country, I’m going to use a term that is very strong, will never become a socialist state. And in that sense, those create disincentives for many different things, but at the same time, the state institutions, like you said, can help out certain institutions, of course, help out certain institutions with their outcomes. And by helping out those institutions, they help out everyone. It really comes down to an individual level, we’re trying to help out as many people as possible to be as successful as possible for their entire career and for their life. We could have a completely different podcast about all those other aspects. And so, any final words, Wally?
Dr. Wallace Boston: I just have one other example. It comes from an article I recently read in The Economist. So depending on how old you are, some of us may have learned how to read through the system called phonics. Over the last 25 years or so there’s been a competing instructional methodology to teach people how to read and it’s called “Whole Language.” The state of Mississippi, in 2013 the legislature passed a law and said reading in the state of Mississippi needed to be taught by the best method as indicated by science. So the state did that, and using the result of it the Department of Education study going back to 1997, they switched everybody over to phonics-led instruction.
So in a relatively short period of time, the law was passed in ’13 and I think they started doing it in 2014. The state of Mississippi’s gone from number 49, in terms of reading proficiency, to number 26. They are the only state in the United States that has actually improved their reading scores for fourth graders. That’s where the benchmark’s measured, for the fourth grade.
The most amazing thing is now there are five other states whose legislatures have passed a rule about teaching reading based on science. But my guess is going to be that for Mississippi, because it’s too soon for the other states, all those laws have been changed recently. But for Mississippi, if they’ve improved their fourth graders’ reading from number 49 in the US to number 26, they’re going to have more 12th graders who matriculate into college and more college freshmen who graduate because reading is just so vital to getting an education.
I remember Jim Etter, who founded American Military University, used to say that “First you learn to read, then you read to learn.” You’re going to be reading to learn more in your life than you’re going to be learning to read, hopefully. I think it makes a big difference, and particularly with medical advances, so they say that we’ll probably have a 60-year career because we’re going to have a lifetime expectancy of 100 years. Reading is so, so important. So this ties into the conversation we’ve been having. Succeeding in college really works best when you have the best preparation K-12. And in my opinion, a lot of it starts with reading, so that will be my thought for the day.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I absolutely love that, and so really excellent example, and I hope it continues to do well in Mississippi and then spread to other states including the state I’m in, Arizona. And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Wally Boston about graduation rates.
Dr. Wallace Boston: Thank you, Bjorn, my pleasure.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.
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